Gang of Four Are Leeds Lads Live!
* This article was altered on Feb. 22, 2011.
Three distinct waves of rock bands have copied Gang of Four's sound, almost all of them lifting Andy Gill's slicing guitar riffs like generations of rappers co-opting off P-Funk bass lines. "It makes me laugh," the 54-year-old says with a chuckle from his home/studio compound in downtown London. "A certain hollow laughter. Laughter in the dark."
Most recently, he says, Bloc Party and the Rapture are groups who've bitten into Gang of Four's seminal sound. Before that, he alleges, Nine Inch Nails, Fugazi and Rage Against the Machine swiped pages. From the first wave, Gill mentions REM "and, to a lesser extent, U2." The Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose first record was Gill-produced) readily cop to the theft.
"I bumped into Flea at a party a couple of years ago, and he said, 'Andy, I'm amazed you guys never sued us.' Which made me laugh. 'You're the reason we got together and did what we did.'"
The real reason was the first two Gang of Four albums, now immortalized as twin touchstones of the punk/new wave era. Gang of Four—Gill, singer Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham—began in Leeds in the middle of an economic downturn. Entertainment (1979) and Solid Gold (1981) introduced a body politic and stripped-bare framework that the band have since tweaked over the years with varying success. The idea—originally and still embodied by Gill and singer King—began at a strange grid point.
"There's a side that's analytical, referring to some art stuff and maybe neo-Marxist texts," Gill says. "Then there's the other side, which is Motown, Dr. Feelgood, Jimi Hendrix and Stax Records. It's that collision of total full-on pop culture with some slightly more difficult ideas."
Gill's playing stays true to those funk-based roots. "I use only a little bit of pedal," he says. "Tremolo is nice. I keep it as simple as possible, really." But since so much sui generis oozed from that first pair of discs, they loom over the latter output. In fact, "Natural's Not In It," with Gill's guitar sharply slashing like a straight razor and King's staccato splutter, remains the most identifiable Gang of Four riff. And it comes less than five minutes into their first record. It's now enjoying a revival in an Xbox commercial.
"I don't have any problem at all with our music being used in other contexts," says Gill. "I haven't told anyone this—not even the other guys in the band yet—but that tune is going to be used in a Robert DeNiro film."
It's not like Gill and his mates were reflexively anti-corporatist; at the start, instead of finding a home on a small indie label, "we decided to go with the biggest, baddest mofo of them all, which was EMI." That perversity, which raised lots of eyebrows, according to Gill, remains active. "If there's any point to Gang of Four, it's to illustrate the way culture and commerce work together. It's exploring what those things mean."
The last time the group worked together was in 2006, after reuniting to revisit and rerecord old material the year before, culminating in Return the Gift. That experience, which Gill compares to "coming across the Dead Sea scrolls and trying to find out what they were about," infused the veterans with excitement. "Playing those songs," says Gill, "felt instantly like we'd written them the day before instead of 20, 25 years ago."
But Burnham then quit to continue a career in academia. Allen—"as he sometimes does without much warning," says Gill—changed his mind, too. Thus, Mark Heaney is the band's new drummer, while Thomas McNeice (whom Gill found while producing a charity single starring Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Elton John and David Gilmour) is on bass.
It's not as if Gang of Four write the most obvious pop songs in the world, as proven by the band's first album of new material in 16 years. Content, which Gill says refers more to providers than a sense of peace, looks back at the band's original blueprints, with a few exceptions. Opening track "She Said" digitally dissects a Gill riff into slivers. A new rhythm section adds a new but familiar backdrop. Rude awakenings and hangovers figure heavily in "I Party All the Time"—which also simulates and/or recycles every ingredient of the old sonic formula. "Never Pay for the Farm," spearheaded by Gill's four-chorded red flag and King's inimitable sneer ("Change your locks/change your life!"), comments on the dark side of home ownership.
"Once, there was lots of money for those who could get their hands on it," Gill says. "Now it's hangover time. A lot of similarities with the late '70s. It was a very tough time when Gang of Four started—a lot worse than now. But people are having a rude awakening."
This article appeared in print as "Leeds Lads Live! Gang of Four dust off their trusty, frequently pirated template one more time."
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